Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage

by Robert and Mollie Brow

Appendix A

What Is a Patriarchal Marriage?

We have given our reasons why it seems to us that the new Testament ideal of marriage is based on a love which cares for the freedom of the other (Chapter 2). Such love will be expressed in a relationship of total mutual submission (Chapter 3). We also suggested that this very new ideal of marriage came into the world with Jesus, and was set out by Paul in his epistles. It also yields a model of how a marriage can be adulterated which is quite different from that of the Old Testament patriarchs and their modern cousins in Arabia. Having said that, it makes no sense to judge the attitudes of patriarchal men by our western idea of faithfulness and adultery. In their model of marriage it was acceptable for a man to have more than one wife. [Genesis 4:19, 29:21-27, 1 Samuel 1:2, 25:42-44.] But in our culture if a man took a second wife he would be committing adultery. This was why the early missionaries from our culture forced a man in Africa with five wives to dismiss four of them before he could be baptised. [Note: The New Testament practice seems to have been to accept polygamists for baptism, but to require monogamy for church leadership. See 1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6]

 Nor was it considered adulterous in patriarchal culture to have a concubine. To our ears the word concubine suggests the using of women for male sexual pleasure. And undoubtedly there were as many men who misused women in the ancient world as there are examples of sexual abuse in our own day. But we should remind ourselves that in the Old Testament the word concubine simply meant a wife whose children would have no legal right to the family inheritance. [See Genesis 22:24, 36:12, Judges 8:30-31, 19:1-22, 2 Samuel 3:7, Chronicles 2:46,48]

 In some cases a woman would be taken in at her request, presumably for protection. An extreme situation was when most of the men had been killed off in war. "Seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, 'We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes; just let us be called by your name; take away our disgrace.'" [Isaiah 3:25-4:1] Here the concubines live in at their own expense, and in some respects are viewed as married to the man, but their children could not expect to be part of his family tree. Keturah for example was Abraham's wife, but she was later listed as his concubine because her children became the ancestors of several desert tribes, who were later united by marriage with other Arab tribes descended from Ishmael, Lot, and Esau. [Genesis 25:1-18, 1 Chronicles 1:32] The children of Israel would descend through Sarah's son Isaac. In the Old Testament, as used to be the case in mediaeval Europe, the family title could only descend through one son. This explains the enormity of what Esau did when he sold the birthright to his twin brother. [Genesis 25:29-34] An interesting exception to the rule of primogeniture was when the sons of Jacob were each given the right to become heads of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. But later, as in the genealogy of the royal line of David, descent was usually through the firstborn son.

 Where there is an exception to the rule, as in the case of Solomon, the reason is explained carefully. [1 Kings 1:11-46] Similarly in the royal lines of Europe it is usually the firstborn son who is heir to the throne. In the Old Testament a woman might even take over as queen, as happened in Britain with Elizabeth the First, Anne, Victoria and and the currently reigning Elizabeth the Second. But in the next generation the royal line goes back to the firstborn son.

 Patriarchal men and women also thought it was perfectly acceptable for a legal wife who was barren to obtain children by her servant. Sarai said to Abram "You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her." [Genesis 16:2, see 30:3-9.] In such cases the child born was usually viewed as belonging to her mistress and had a full legal title to the man's genealogical line. That is why for the past three thousand years Arabs have maintained that Ishmael, the ancestor of their people was the rightful heir of Abraham's line.

 In the New Testament Jesus was asked a question about a man being required to raise up children for his brother's childless widow. [Matthew 22:23-30, Mark 12:18-25, Luke 20:27- 35, based on the law in Deuteronomy 25:5-6] According to this practice the woman was neither a second wife nor a concubine. Any children who were born were viewed as the legal heirs of the widow's dead husband. In our culture if a man offered to provide heirs for his dead brother by bedding his widow, we can imagine his own wife and all the neighbours would call it adultery.

 From reading the Old Testament we can attempt to guess what might have been the logic of these customs, and why they were not viewed as adulterous. One factor was that the men, and perhaps the women also, considered the family genealogy to be supremely important. This is suggested by the prominence given in the Bible to genealogical lists. Genesis 25 for example gives the original genealogy of the Arabs descended from Hagar and Keturah. They belong to a different line from the children of Israel, but they also have a continuing place in God's purpose. [Genesis 17:20, 21:18. Arabs descended from Esau are listed in 36:9-43.]

 Jewish Old Testament priests had to prove their direct descent from the line of Aaron. [Exodus 6:16-25, 40:12-15] Early genealogies of the children of Israel show how important this was for what later became the royal line of David. [Note: Genesis 46, Exodus 6:14-25, Numbers 26:4-61, and Ruth 4:18-22. The first eight chapters of 1 Chronicles show how the process of genealogical listing later continued to be important.]

 This is why Matthew's Gospel begins with Joseph's lineage. And when Joseph accepted Jesus as his son, and listed him as such in the Bethlehem census list, the eternal Son of God was also assigned the legal right to be undisputed heir of the royal line of David. If his enemies could have denied this, they would have had an easy proof that he was not the Messiah from the line of David.

 The patriarchal concern for family lines meant that adultery was limited to acts where there was the possibility of a married woman being impregnated by another man. What the man did by taking another wife, or concubine, or even a prostitute, was therefore not considered adulterous. The writers of this book were astonished to discover that a similar model of what marriage was about, and what would adulterate it, has continued unchanged over three thousand years among the Arabs of Arabia.

 [Note : There are other explanations of the logic of Old Testament marriage, adultery, and divorce in terms of property. L.W. Countryman focussed on the concept of impurity in Dirt, Greed and Sex, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988; London: S.C.M., 1989). See also an important earlier work, M. Douglas, Purity and Danger, (London: Routledge, 1966; New York: Praeger, 1966).]

 In our generation patriarchy has been given a broader meaning than in the model we have identified in the Old Testament. See for example Genda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). Sandra Schneiders defines patriarchy as "the absolute and unaccountable power over wives and concubines, children, servants, slaves, animals and real property enjoyed by the pater familias." [Women and the Word, (New York & Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1986) p.11].

 In a later book Sandra Schneiders maintains that "All forms of feminism recognize that patriarchy is a basic cause of women's oppression." [Beyond Patching, (New York: Paulist Press, 1991) p.18]. We have no objection to this widening of the definition among modern feminists. Our interest is focussed much more narrowly on the model change that occurs in the New Testament vision of marriage.

 We have no way of knowing whether Saul, the rabbi from Tarsus, was committed to every detail of what we have called an Old Testament patriarchal model before his conversion. He called himself a disciple of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), which suggests that he belonged to the more liberal wing of the Pharisees who belonged to the school of Hillel as opposed to the more conservative school of Shammai. Perhaps he had already changed from some of the ideas which we have called patriarchal.

 Our use of the term patriarchal is from the Old Testament picture of the culture and attitudes of one particular nation. But the Bible makes clear that God is interested in all nations, and they each have their history and traditions. Paul preached in the Areopagus of Athens "From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search fore God and perhaps grope for him and find him - though indeed he is not far from each of us." [Acts 17:26-27]

 When the Son of God came and took birth among the Jewish people of that day he had to contrast their traditions with God's way of loving. Some of their laws, and ideas, and practices were good, and needed to be affirmed. Others needed to be amended or deepened. Similarly every nation at any time in its history has its own set of patriarchal and other traditions. And the words of the Sermon on the Mount "It was said . . . but I say to you" need to be explained in every nation of the world in relation to every detail of that culture's life and attitudes. [Matthew 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43] But especially in relation to marriage and family life, which is where most people begin to learn rightly or wrongly what love is about.

 The great commission [Matthew 28:19,20] therefore involves taking birth in each culture, understanding their patriarchal or other model from the inside, and then opening their mind to heaven's model of unconditional love in contrast to their particular tradition of love and marriage. But cultural attitudes are changing imperceptibly every year, and sometimes radically from generation to generation. It is therefore the task of churches in each nation need to understand the logic of ordinary people's thinking about love and marriage, and say graciously at every point "But I say to you" in the name of the eternal Son of God. This book will have succeeded if we have done that.

 We might add our conviction that genuine Christian faith will only flower where the radical change in the very idea of love and marriage which we have outlined is made visible among ordinary people. Or one might put it the other way and say that, once the women of a culture are able to catch a glimpse of what genuine love and mutuality might look like, the days of patriarchy are numbered.

 This was perhaps the secret of the huge church growth that took place in the first three centuries before patriarchy was able to renew its grip on marriage. And it is for that reason that the impact of a genuine feminism of love and mutuality in our day may have already prepared the ground for a huge harvest of the loving marriages that God had in mind.